Anglican Church won't licence reinstated clergymen

Reverend Pat Comben won't be able to minister again unless he is granted a licence by the bishop where he lives.
Reverend Pat Comben won't be able to minister again unless he is granted a licence by the bishop where he lives. QUENTIN JONES

TWO ANGLICAN clergymen controversially returned to Holy Orders after being defrocked for their roles in covering up historic cases of child sex abuse, are unlikely to minister again.

Former Bishop of Grafton Keith Slater and Grafton Deacon Rev Pat Comben have been returned to Holy Orders this year after attempts to "depose” them in 2015.

The pair were found to have acted inappropriately to victims of the notorious North Coast Children's Home who came to them seeking redress for past abuses.

The attempted defrocking came after an church inquiry into evidence of historic child sex abuse at the home at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

But last year Bishop Slater successfully appealed against the decision on the ground the diocese did not have the necessary powers to strip clergy of Holy Orders.

Rev Comben's title was reinstated this year when the church agreed the ruling for Bishop Slater also applied to him.

Bishop Keith Slater.
Bishop Keith Slater. The Northern Star Archives

A spokesman from the Grafton Diocese, Rev Vivian Hoskins, said Bishop Slater and Rev Comben now hold titles that reflect their status as ordained persons.

But he said they would need to be granted licences to minister to congregations.

"All persons, clergy and laity, holding positions of ministry within the Anglican Church do so under licence from diocesan bishop of the day,” he said.

"No person can legally minister according their position, without a licence.

"Neither Bishop Slater nor Rev Comben has applied for a licence granting them authority to officiate within the Diocese.”

Rev Hoskins said the church would take steps to ensure there is no recurrence of the failure of process which allowed the two defrocked North Coast clergymen to return to Holy Orders.

He said the Anglican Church of Australia is expected to strengthen its professional standards and disciplinary powers applicable to present and former bishops at its National Synod in September.

The diocese's action against the pair was a response to a Royal Commission investigation into claims of sexual and physical abuse of some residents at the North Coast Children's Home Lismore between 1940 and 1980.

A report by the commission in October, 2014 made a number of findings implicating Bishop Slater and Rev Comben and their handling of claims by former residents of the children's home.

Rev Hoskins said the failed defrocking of the clergymen by the diocese was based on a new Professional Standards Ordinance adopted in 2004.

He said the laws were the work of the church's national body in response to a growing number of allegations of sexual abuse by ordained persons within the church.

The examination of Bishop Slater represented the first use of the new legislation by an Australian Anglican Diocese in regard to a former or current diocesan bishop.

Bishop Slater appealed this decision before an Appellate Tribunal of the Anglican Church of Australia, headed by Justice Keith Mason of the NSW Court of Appeal, sitting in Sydney in November of last year.

The tribunal found that under the Professional Standards Ordinance of 2004 the Grafton (Diocesan) Professional Standards Board had no jurisdiction to examine the conduct of Bishop Slater.

The tribunal's finding meant that Bishop Slater retained his orders of bishop, priest and deacon.

Grafton Diocese, under its present Bishop, the Rt Rev Sarah Macneil, accepted the opinion of the tribunal and informed Bishop Slater accordingly.

The tribunal's decision also impacted on the deposition of former Diocesan Registrar and deacon, the Rev, Patrick Comben in July of 2015.

After obtaining legal advice Bishop Macneil wrote to the Rev. Comben informing him his deposition was null and void.

The Anglican Church of Australia is reviewing the Professional Standards and disciplinary powers that can be applied to Diocesan Bishops including former Diocesan Bishops.

It is expected that these powers will be strengthened at the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia to be held in September.

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